California Bill to Add Gyms to Medi-Cal Program Fails to Pass Committee

AB 1338, a California bill that would have added recreational sports programs, activities or memberships to the community offerings covered by Medi-Cal, a healthcare program in California for low-income people, failed to pass the state assembly’s appropriations committee on May 19.

Administered by the California State Department of Health Care Services, the Medi-Cal program allows low-income people to receive health care services under provisions of the federally funded Medicaid program. Those services include support such as recuperative care, day habilitation programs, and medically supportive food and nutrition services. The bill would have added gym memberships to the list of covered support.

The California Fitness Alliance (CFA), which is an alliance of health clubs, studios and suppliers in California, noted disappointment in the failure of the bill to pass, saying the bill would have helped improve the physical and mental health of the most underserved Californians.  

“This policy would have covered the cost of fitness memberships for Medi-Cal beneficiaries, helping to advance health equity, improve quality of life and save on long-term health care costs for millions of Californians,” CFA President Francesca Schuler said in a statement.

Increasing exercise, improving nutritional intake, eliminating the use of tobacco and decreasing consumption of alcohol can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and many types of cancers by 80 percent, according to research.

Research also shows that programs that cover the cost of exercise work, she said. Total medical care expenses were reduced by 16 percent for participants in Medicare’s Silver Sneakers program compared to non-participants.

Even that small of a reduction helps in a state like California, which spends 42 percent of total state health care costs on treating chronic conditions. The state is estimated to spend about $141 billion in direct costs on heart disease, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, depression and asthma. With access to exercise, just a one percent reduction in weight, blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol risk factors would reduce patients’ annual medical costs by $83 to $103 per person, resulting in a potential health care cost savings in the state of up to $135 million per year, Schuler said.

“Further, because exercise is proven to improve mental health, AB 1338 would have helped address the state’s distressing mental health crisis, where more than 30 percent of California adults currently suffer from depression and anxiety,” she said. “We look forward to continuing to educate policymakers on the value of movement on physical and mental well-being and are committed to building on our momentum and returning to the legislature next year to champion this important effort. We hope that California legislators will continue to consider creating access to proactive, cost-effective alternatives to traditional medical services that will save the state money.”

CFA plans to reintroduce this legislation next year.